The Future and Its Impact

During this age of rapid technological and social change, it is important for a profession to gaze into the future. As Alvin Toffler said in his book "Power Shift: "... as we advance into the terra incognita of tomorrow, it is better to have a general and incomplete map, subject to revision and correction, than to have no map at all."

To put it another way, we cannot know the future, but we see trends happening now that can be projected forward. We only have to gaze five to ten years into the future to know that the profession of orientation and mobility as it is now understood (cane travel and the use of landmarks for orientation) will either be gone, or it will fundamentally change. It is also clear that every two years or less our profession will have to redefine itself and reposition energy to accommodate new technology. These may seem like outrageous comments to those not following the communications and biotechnology revolutions. But the changes are here and now, and they will have profound impact on our professional lives.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, co-founder of chip maker Intel, put forth an axiom that became known as Moore's Law. Moore stated that every year since 1959 the number of components on a microchip had doubled. Moore predicted that this trend would continue until 1975. . . He was wrong.

The computer industry turned Moore's axiom into a general law. Further investigation showed that the law held as far back as the 1940's, if the time frame for doubling is adjusted to 18 months, rather than one year. As 1975 came and went it also became clear that Moore's Law was headed into the future with no signs of failing. The law is now treated as a summary statement that every 18 months a new chip goes on the market that is twice as fast as it's predecessor, has twice the memory, is cheaper, and more compact. No one is predicting that Moore's Law is about to end any time soon. "Every two years more computers are produced than existed on the planet previously." (Andy Grove, CEO, Intel Corporation)

The complexity of the software that takes advantage of the periodic doubling of computer chips, also follows Moore's Law. The number of lines of code written for computer programs is doubling faster than 18 months. Microsoft's word processing program had 27,000 lines of code when it was first released. By 1995 Microsoft Word had two million lines of code. The next version will have four million, then eight, sixteen, doubling every 12 to 18 months.

The internet is doubling in size every year. World wide web pages are doubling every 50 days. The power of a computer network has been defined as the square of the number of users on the network. This means that the power of the world wide web is quadrupling every 50 days.

Raymond Kurzweil, inventor of the Kurzweil Reader (and numerous inventions for disabled people), traveled from conference to conference in the 1990's talking about the impact of Moore's Law on disability groups, and on the professions that served them. Dr. Kurzweil told his audiences that the doubling power of computers had reached a critical threshold.

Dr. Kurzweil tells the story of the Chinese Emperor who was so pleased with the game of chess that he granted the inventor any wish. The creator of chess asked the Emperor for one humble grain of rice to be placed on the first square of a chess board, two meager grains of rice on the second square, four tiny grains on the third square, eight grains lined up neatly on the next square, and so forth until all 64 squares of the board were accounted for. The Emperor thought the inventor a humble man for asking so little, yet by the 32nd square the Emperor owed the inventor eight billion grains of rice, enough to cover a one acre field.

Dramatic things happen on the second half of the chess board, from square 33 to the 64th square (at which point the inventor controls all the rice on the planet).

According to Dr. Kurzweil, in 1995, we reached the 32nd doubling of computer power. In the first quarter of 1996 more computers were sold than televisions, and more mail was delivered electronically than through the postal service. You might have heard that this is the information age, and that a technological revolution is going on. What you might not have heard is that the revolution didn't really take off until 1995. Hold onto your hat. The real revolution is about to begin.

Dramatic changes are underfoot. Computers are getting ready to listen, understand, translate languages in real time, respond instantly with voice, video, animation, graphics, and text. Soon computers will immerse us in virtual worlds so strange and unusual we cannot yet imagine their composition. The reason these changes are no longer science fiction is because we now have (or will soon have) the computing power to make them happen. We crossed the threshold into the future. We are standing on the second half of the chess board. What does this imply for the profession of orientation and mobility, and for the students we serve?

Dr. Kurzweil states that "we will have the technology in a decade to largely overcome the handicaps that are associated with visual, auditory and other disabilities." If Kurzweil is right,the impact of new technology may mean the end for the profession of orientation and mobility as most of us know it; certainly our approach and philosophy will need to be radically reassessed every year.

The science of visual pattern recognition only awaits more powerful computers to design machines with vision systems that rival our own. There is a large and energetic field of scientists working in universities and companies all over the globe to make this miracle a reality. Remember that Moore's Law has passed the 32nd position of the chess board. Machine vision is not science fiction. It is about to happen. By the year 2005 there will be one billion transistors on a chip. This magnitude of power will make practical machine vision possible shortly after the turn of the century.

Kurzweil foresees a merging of the technologies for machine reading and for machine navigation. Combining satellite positioning systems with voice and artificial vision technologies will provide the blind traveler with the tools to explore the world visually. Blind individuals will travel at the same speed and with the same grace as the sighted population.

Despite all these wondrous changes, the futurists are telling us that we have only begun to paint on the walls of the digital cave. We only need to look out the front door to see that technology has yet to fulfill it's imagined destiny.

Storm Clouds

Dr. Kursweil's visions reside on the sunny side of the street. Like all issues facing human beings, there are clouds and storms that spoil the perfect picnic.

Every year in Michigan there is a huge gathering called the Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning (MACUL). Educators come together to hear futurists, and to view the latest technologies. Teachers leave the MACUL conference full of ideas, marveling at the achievements of mankind. The last conference was held in downtown Detroit.

When I left the conference I boarded the People Mover, a monorail through downtown. As I stared out the window, I saw the bombed out remains of an American inner city. The contrast between the glowing predictions of the futurists and the stark reality of poverty left a lasting impression.

We are racing into a technological future where frightening ethical issues await. At the same time, we are racing backwards into a third world full of poverty and hopelessness. Our obsession with technology must be balanced by an appreciation for the beauty of individual human beings. There is a poetry in everyday life that can be overrun by the frantic pace of our technological world. It is this poetic side of our nature that cares about the poverty, the hopelessness, and the disabilities. Our technological advances are far out racing our poetic determination.

Mobility specialists will need to monitor new technologies, watch them as they unfold, lobby for the creation of others, and continually make projections about the impact of these technologies on the profession and on our students. Since the amount of information is exploding so fast, we will need to be continually alert, and be ready to adapt quickly and often. At the same time as we address the technological revolution, we will have to shoulder our poetic responsibilities. We can do this as a profession in three steps:

oneAcknowledge the existence of inadequate services in the poor regions of the world

twoDevelop a plan to counter and correct the conditions

threeFollow through on our ambitions and ideals


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